The wonderful Belle Yang has asked for some specifics about the kinds of editorial comments good editors have made on my poetry. Three editors come to mind for their generosity and perceptiveness. Michelle Boisseau, the poetry editor for BkMk Press, changed my life and my literary perceptions by her imaginative editing of my poetry manuscript, Circe, After Hours. The manuscript had already been accepted for book publication; Michelle and I had arranged a phone conversation about the poems and their arrangement. I had been counseled by my friend Alice Friman to listen to Michelle--"She's very, very smart." And Michelle herself told me, "Take risks. I won't let you fall."
From there, the conversation grew more difficult. I had arranged the manuscript into thematic chapters. "You're thinking like a librarian," Michelle opened. (At that point, I got so insulted and nervous that I ate a whole box of Girl Scout cookie mints.) Still I listened. Michelle mixed up the order of the poems more unexpectedly than I would have dared to. She placed love poems and erotic poems next to family narratives and poems of Jewish identity. The surprising juxtapositions created sparks. The manuscript became much more lively through this risk-taking. The editor did not let me fall!
I would also praise the editing of Robert Stewart, the editor at New Letters literary magazine. Recently, Robert accepted a poem of mine based on my Holocaust research in Poland. The poem, "Questions After the Poetry Reading," addressed the terrible history in Poland, but also recounted a speaking engagement in Warsaw where I had been verbally assaulted by a prominent Jewish woman. Though he had accepted the poem, Robert also made extensive editing suggestions on the piece. He cut out most of the bickering between the narrator (me)and the attacker. As a result, the poem became two pages instead of three; the emphasis shifted back to the Holocaust in Poland and away from the struggle for dominance between the two women. The editor's instincts were spot-on. "I expected your poetry to be more spiritual," the attacker said. Now the poem ends, "In a country steeped in the blood of Jews / what would it mean to be 'more spiritual"? I will always be grateful to Robert Stewart for his editing. I highly recommend New Letters as a place to send your best writing--poetry and fiction. Stewart is an old-fashioned editor (he reads everything), a superb reader, and a fine prose writer in his own right.
I took 80 per cent of his suggestions, did not compromise about a line or two that I felt was important. Robert had edited out, "Where's the Jewish body / invisible as Elijah?" but I left that in the final version, as part of the grappling with what poetry should be after the Holocaust. The editor respected my response, and the poem was published with most but not all of his suggestions in place.
David Barber at the Atlantic Monthly has not yet accepted poetry of mine (how's that for hopeful!), but his letters never make me feel rejected. I sent poems about the Garonne, he wrote back "though these poems flow as varied and wide-ranging as the Garonne, still no single one of them wins the day" (or something to that effect.) My husband asked, "Why are you looking so happy? That's a rejection letter."
"I don't feel rejected," I answered.
Causes Marilyn Kallet Supports
Southern Poverty Law Center, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, ACLU, Amnesty International, Save Darfur.